To give or not to give

The other day I drove by a Walmart parking lot and noticed what looked like a homeless person holding a "Will work for food" sign. And not 10 feet away from him a sign for Walmart sign read: "Now hiring!" The irony made me laugh, and I wished I had stopped to take a picture.

But it made me ponder why it is that I am so frequently conflicted about giving money to beggars. Sometimes I give, sometimes I don’t. More than once I whispered to my husband, "Go back and give that guy some money." And I wonder if I do it to make myself feel good, or do I do it strictly out of compassion for the less fortunate? I suspect it’s a combination of both.

But I think one of the main reasons people feel reluctant to give is the assumption that those asking for money are too lazy to work.

But how do we really know why someone isn’t working, especially in today’s economic arena? We frequently see stories in the news about educated, older people laid off from their job who end up sleeping in their car, if they have one.

Who are we really to judge why someone is not working? I worked for 40 years as an RN and ended up with debilitating back pain and leg weakness after a failed spinal fusion, but was turned down for disability, because even if I can no longer bend, lift or sit or stand for more than 20 minutes at a time, a judge decided that I should still be able to work as a nurse. Fortunately, I am one of the lucky ones who has a partner to help support me, but what if I didn’t? People who have spent a lifetime working still end up on the streets. So how do you determine who "deserves" a handout?

There's also the argument that if you give money to people on the streets, they just turn around and buy drugs or alcohol. And, you know what? Maybe some do. But I have a friend who ran away from home as a teenager and lived on the streets of Berkeley for a few weeks. She said to me, "Street people do not spend their money on drugs. They buy food. Trust me on this!"

I am guessing the biggest reason people tend to avoid those asking for handouts is the feeling of being taken advantage of. "I worked hard for my money! Why should I give a total stranger anything?"

And yes, it is true that there are people on the streets who actually might be scamming the public and taking advantage of the generosity of strangers. But how do you make the determination? What difference does it truly make if you slip someone some money who maybe isn’t really that needy? Again it begs the question, are you doing it for him or are you doing it because, in some small way, it makes you feel better that you helped out a total stranger? And if you did, isn’t it money well spent?

Darlene Ensor lives in Medford.

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